Escaping the anxious cycle

Anxiety is evolved into us attentionally. We can reduce it by finding an alternative focus of attention, teaching our bodies to rest, and building ourselves a safe environment. Photo by Hans Vivek on Unsplash

When we are worried, we are constantly looking around for triggers and clues that everything is not all right.  It’s part of the watchfulness evolved into us by our history as a species.  When defending against predators, this watchfulness is useful.  When trying to live in a less threatening social environment, the same watchfulness can become counterproductive.

Let’s consider an example.  Jess is self-admittedly anxious.  Since childhood, she has, as she puts it, overanalysed things.  She overthinks, she says.  Recently, she has started dating.  Things are developing, but she finds herself agonising over the smallest things.  After she and her boyfriend have met up, she replays their conversations in her head, looking for evidence that things are either OK or not OK.

This mindset is exhausting for her.  She wants to be rid of the constant anxiety.  It interrupts her daily existence.  She doesn’t sleep so well.  She frets over every text shared with her boyfriend.  She worries over every aspect of their relationship.  She even finds herself thinking it might be easier if they split up, just so she didn’t have to worry so much.  At least then she wouldn’t have to be concerned about rejection.

She comes to counselling, and starts to look at herself and her responses more closely.  She realises three things about her current set of anxious behaviours:

  1. I don’t seem to be able to forget what I’m worried about.  It’s constantly in my mind, and I can’t let it go.
  2. I never feel that I’ve finished dealing with it.  I can’t have a rest.  I long to be able to chill, to have time away from the anxious ruminations.
  3. I am always fearing the worst.  My imagination paints these nightmare scenarios, and I become convinced they are going to happen.

These three reflections are typical of many anxious clients, including those suffering from bereavement or trauma.  They cannot forget, they cannot rest, and they catastrophize.

These mental habits all have a grounding in our psychological evolution as humans.  They are short-term survival techniques.  Who is going to survive temporary threat better? Someone who can’t see danger, falls asleep on the job, and constantly underplays risk?  Or someone who is constantly alert to danger, stays wakeful, and is attuned to the worst that could happen?

There is also an evolved social function of anxiety, in which an alert, wakeful, pessimistic response allows members of a social group to integrate with each other.  In particular, fearing the worst may keep more submissive individuals cooperating with more powerful individuals.  This is not to say it is right – only that anxiety makes this form of social control possible.


So what happens when we want to escape this ruthless cycle of constant alertness, wakefulness, and catastrophizing?  To solve the problem, we need to harness our own minds again, and remove them from the grip of the object of worry.


Firstly, it won’t work simply telling oneself not to think about it.  That’s like asking someone not to think of the colour green.  We need to find an alternative focus, and place ourselves in that alternative world.  Ideally, that alternative focus should have a social pull of its own, absorbing our attention, and having a story of its own.  The mind finds it hard to carry two narratives at once, so we are aiming to crowd out one story with another.  Examples include sport and games, watching film and theatre, church for the religious… anything that provides a coherent alternative social environment with a story attached.


Secondly, we can begin to teach the body to rest.  This solution to anxiety is extremely ritual-based.  We are trying to manipulate our unconscious mind, using plans created by our conscious mind.  When getting ready to rest, we begin to withdraw from stimulation.  We turn the lights down, and move to a passive mode.  We surround ourselves with soft materials such as blankets, or warm materials such as fires, radiators, other people.  We do activities which render us passively conscious, such as watching bland TV, or reading books.


Thirdly (and the hardest thing to do), we can teach our minds to see safety rather than danger.  As with rest, we can make plans to create a safe environment around us.  We can surround ourselves with calm people, close curtains to the outside world, and use objects that suggest safety (coats, gloves, blankets, comfortable chairs, walls, locks, etc).  By doing this, we are using our conscious mind to design an environment that lulls our unconscious mind into a sense of safety.

Although it is harder, we can also experience safety by using awareness meditations.  Meditating on emptiness, for instance, is a technique which allows us to gain mental mastery over potentially fearful objects.  After all, if we can realize that fear is only delusion, and the object of fear doesn’t really exist as we think it does, then we have a way of retreating into simple awareness, and dropping fear.  This takes training, but can be an extremely effective way to calm the mind.


Anxiety is, in a sense, programmed into us by our evolution.

To master it, we can manipulate it by:

  1. REFOCUSING THE MIND – We can refocus our attention on a different, strong social story (sport, games, films, theatre, church etc)
  2. REDUCING STIMULATION – We can reduce environmental stimulation and activity when we plan to rest (low light, warmth, soft materials, bland entertainment, books)
  3. REGAINING A SAFETY PERSPECTIVE – We can use our environment to regain a safety perspective (calm people, curtains, comfort). We can also practice meditation to give ourselves a safe inner mental environment.